If you are a current college or university student, or someone striving to be one, you know that one of the greatest barriers to getting a higher education is money. That’s where financial aid comes in. Financial aid helps students pay for college, so they can stress less about how they’ll pay the next bill when they’re in school. But how do you get financial aid?
We’re so glad you asked. Let us introduce you to your new best friend and ticket to financial aid, the FAFSA®.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) is a form for both prospective and current college students that helps determine what financial aid they’re eligible for.
Let’s take a look at how the FAFSA® can help you pay for college and how you can apply.
Why Is the FAFSA® Important and How Does It Work?
FAFSA® is an application that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and private or state colleges and universities use to determine how much financial aid to award a student. If you don’t fill it out, they can’t evaluate your demonstrated financial need or your family’s financial situation. In simple terms, they won’t be able to award and disburse financial aid to you.
The FAFSA® helps eligible students pay for college by tossing their hat in the ring for federal loans, institutional scholarships, grants and work-study programs.
There are many factors students must meet to qualify for each different type of aid. Your eligibility is not just based on your financial situation, but also information about your parent(s) or legal guardian(s).
When you fill out the FAFSA®, the data is used to determine your Student Aid Index (SAI), which schools use when calculating how much financial aid to award you.
So, let’s explore the financial aid that FAFSA® gives you access to.
Types of Financial Awards The FAFSA® Helps You Get
Your financial aid award letter from a school will tell you which financial aid you’re eligible for. The award letter will also give you dollar amounts, so you know how much financial aid you can count on. Let’s get better acquainted with the main financial aid programs.
Institutional scholarships are a wonderful type of financial aid you don’t have to pay back. Colleges usually have many scholarships that can be need- or merit-based. Alumni will often endow scholarships with specific qualifications like a student’s ethnicity, major or career path to help support those students.
The type of grants the FAFSA® helps you qualify for can be federal, state or institutional. They can be based on demonstrated financial need, academic program, or merit. Grants are a good reason to complete the FAFSA® as soon as possible, since they can be limited by funding and are often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
Work-study is a federally funded program for students to work on campus. This program pays students to hold campus jobs and work throughout the semesters. You can earn up to the amount you qualified for in your award letter.
Work-study programs are a great option if you can balance work and your academics.
There are three main types of federal student loans: Direct subsidized, Direct unsubsidized, and Direct PLUS. Each has slightly different qualifications and operates differently.
- Direct subsidized: This loan type is need-based and available to undergraduate students. It’s considered subsidized, because the ED pays the interest while the borrower is in school at least half-time and during a six-month grace period after graduation.
- Direct unsubsidized: This loan type is available to all undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of need. However, it incurs interest during the entire life of the loan, including your time in school.
- Direct PLUS: This is a unique loan type that allows parents or guardians to borrow for their undergraduate students (Parent PLUS) or graduate students to borrow what they need (Grad PLUS).
Who Should Submit a FAFSA® Application?
All undergraduate students and graduate students who are interested in financial aid should fill out the FAFSA®. However, not everyone is eligible for every type of financial aid offered. Many of the options made available by the FAFSA® results are based on need. To qualify for federal financial aid, students must meet some specific criteria:
- High school graduate with a diploma or GED, or state-approved homeschool high school education
- U.S. citizen or eligible resident with a Social Security number or Alien Registration Number
- Status as an enrolled or accepted student in an eligible academic program
What Is the Deadline for FAFSA®?
The FAFSA® opens on October 1, before the next academic year. So for the 2023 – 2024 academic year, it’s October 1, 2022. It will remain open until June 30 of the next year, so June 30, 2023 for the 2023 – 2024 academic year.
Just because the federal FAFSA® deadline is June 30, doesn’t mean you’re safe putting off applying until then. Some types of financial aid are given on a first-come first-served basis, so it’s in your best interest to apply ASAP.
And those are just the federal deadlines. Each state and school can have their own deadlines, so be sure and look into them. You don’t want to miss your state or school deadline, as it could cost you your financial aid. For many schools, the deadline can be as early as February.
How Do I Fill Out the FAFSA® Application?
Some people talk about the FAFSA® like it’s the bane of their existence. When in reality, it is nothing more than a form. Sure, it may take more time than you’d like to fill out, but it’s worth it in the long run.
Let’s go over the steps to filling out the FAFSA® so you can tackle it with confidence.
1. Prepare your documents
Before you start, gather some necessary documents, so you’re not running around like you’re on a treasure hunt for each form as the FAFSA® asks for it.
- Social Security Number (or Alien Registration Number)
- Bank statements
- Investment statements
- Tax returns and W-2s
- Statements from any untaxed income
If you’re considered a dependent, you’ll also need each of these documents for your parent or guardian.
2. Create your Federal Student Aid ID
Your Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID is your username and password to log into the FAFSA® site. Simply go to the FSA site and follow the prompts to create an account. Use a complicated password since it’ll be protecting your financial information.
Because you’ll share personal financial information on the FAFSA®, only apply on a secure device. Be sure your FSA ID is one you can remember, since you’ll be filling out the FAFSA® each year you’re in school.
3. Input your required student and parent/guardian information
Drumroll please … You’ve made it! It’s time to actually fill out the FAFSA®.
The financial details you provide during this step are used to determine your SAI, and from that number your college can create a total financial aid package for you, So, it’s important to input your personal and financial data as accurately as possible.
4. Submit the FAFSA® and prepare for the next steps
Once you have completed the form, spend a few moments reviewing the information and double checking everything. Then, once you’re satisfied, hit submit!
Your FAFSA® will take 3 – 5 days to process. Then you’ll receive your Student Aid Report (SAR), which includes your SAI. It will also send the SAR to all the colleges you listed on your FAFSA®. The colleges themselves are responsible for assembling your financial aid package based on the information in the SAR, especially the SAI.
FAFSA®: More Than Just Another Acronym. It’s Money.
The FAFSA® is your ticket to getting financial aid. It’s designed to help students access federal and state financial aid for college. So fill out your FAFSA and hop on the financial aid train today.
The CSS profile is similar to the FAFSA®, but with a few key differences. It’s an application distributed by the College Board that many private universities use to determine eligibility for non-federal financial aid like private scholarships and grants.
The primary difference between the FAFSA and the CSS is the cost. While the FAFSA is free, the CSS profile costs $25 for the first school you submit it to and $16 for any additional schools. But don’t let the cost deter you, because the CSS opens doors for an abundance of additional financial aid.
Because of the financial strain COVID-19 has placed on many students, more students are filing the FAFSA than ever. So it’s in your best interest to file it ASAP to qualify for some of those first-come, first-served grants.
Fortunately, the ED recognizes the current financial environment and is offering more solutions to help students afford college. We’ve listed some scenarios and actions you can take to access the additional options:
- Scenario 1: Taylor’s family got hit with extra expenses because of COVID-19 and needs a bit more financial help to cover costs.
Solution: Taylor can apply for a COVID-19 emergency financial aid grant to help cover the cost of living.
- Scenario 2: Dylan’s family financial situation changed dramatically since the financial aid award letter hit the mailbox.
Solution: Dylan can request a financial aid adjustment.
- Scenario 3: Jordan took a leave of absence and wants to re-enroll, so needs to get financial aid reinstated.
Solution: Jordan can ask the school to roll over the student financial aid from a previous semester.
- Scenario 4: Shannon didn’t meet the school’s standards for satisfactory academic progress (SAP) because of COVID-19 and is no longer eligible for financial aid.
Solution: Shannon can ask the school to exclude certain credits and could still qualify for financial aid if the school grants the exclusion.
Ask your school’s financial aid office for details if your situation matches any of these scenarios.
Federal Student Aid. “Eligibility Requirements.” Retrieved March 2022 from https://studentaid.gov/understand-aid/eligibility
Federal Student Aid. “FAFSA® Deadlines.” Retrieved March 2022 from https://studentaid.gov/apply-for-aid/fafsa/fafsa-deadlines
Federal Student Aid. “What will I need to fill out the FAFSA?” Retrieved March 2022 from https://studentaid.gov/help/info-needed
Federal Student Aid. “I submitted my FAFSA® form; What happens next?” Retrieved March 2022 from https://studentaid.gov/help-center/answers/article/next-steps-after-submitting-fafsa
College Board. “2022-23 CSS Profile Student Guide.” Retrieved March 2022 from https://cssprofile.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/css-profile-student-guide.pdf
Federal Student Aid. “6 Things Students Need to Know During COVID-19.” Retrieved March 2022 from https://studentaid.gov/articles/6-things-to-know-during-coronavirus/